• Message from James Clarke

    "South Africa's Best Humour Columnist"

    - SA's Comedy Awards September 2008

    “South Africa’s funniest columnist.”

    - Financial Mail

    WELCOME TO MY BLOG

    The name is Clarke. James Clarke. I have been told by people who know their way around the electronic world with its iPads, USBs, processors, modems, 500 gb hard drives, Blackberries and microwave ovens, that as a writer I have to have a blogsite. Otherwise, I am told, it is like passing oneself off as a CEO and you haven’t a leather chair that tilts back.

    Yet after four years of having a blogsite I still don’t really understand what it is or how it helps sell my books which is my major concern in life apart from not stepping on cracks when walking on the pavement.

    I am also told that on a blogsite it is customary to refer to oneself in the third person. This enables one to grossly exaggerate ones attainments without appearing to have done so personally.

    Not being one to buck the system...

    London-born James Clarke is your average tall, dark, handsome fellow who writes books – fiction and non-fiction. As a humorist he has been compared with PG Wodehouse and James Thurber. (The Daily Bugle in Des Moines said “compared with the works of PG Wodehouse and James Thurber, Clarke’s writing isn’t worth a row of beans”.)

    He long ago settled in South Africa where he became a mover and a shaker in the world of the environmental sciences. As a youth, being a mover and a shaker, had made it impossible for him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a bottler in a nitro-glycerine plant. Hence he turned to journalism.

    But around the time he retired a few years ago he found a new pursuit as a humorist. He wrote a daily humour column in the Johannesburg Star (now syndicated) and began turning out books of humour in the UK and South Africa.

    Clarke very recently moved boldly into the electronic publishing world. It was, he said afterwards, like a non-swimmer diving into a pool without first testing its depth.

    In November 2011 he re-issued his latest book of humour, “Blazing Saddles”, as an Amazon Kindle e-book under the title “Blazing Bicycle Saddles”. For a mere US$4.99 you can download a copy of this seminal cycling book in a matter of seconds by clicking here ....


    ooo

    He did this with the full realisation that he is totally at sea in the electronic world with its telephones that take movies and receive faxes and sports results.

    The original edition of “Blazing Saddles”, published by Jonathan Ball, has been out of print for two years. It reveals the true story of how six retired men – five of them journalists – year after year set out (intrepidly) from the African continent on a series of exploratory expeditions cycling into “Darkest Europe” to bring back to the people of Africa tales of its funny natives.

    Clarke will also shortly be publishing, via Amazon.com, another of his action-packed autobiographical books – this time an account of his Second World War exploits as L*E*A*D*E*R of the Yellow Six Patrol of the 1st Streetly Boy Scouts in the English Midlands. He recounts the patrol’s ceaseless campaign to defeat Adolf Hitler’s plan to invade England.

    You can read about “The Yellow Six” within this blogsite.

    Clarke, apart from moving and shaking, is a travel writer and proud father of two highly successful daughters – one a biologist and the other an environmental impact analyst. He and his wife, Lenka, live north of Johannesburg.

We must keep our heads down

An international team of scientists is persisting in trying to connect with aliens living in outer space. This week the Seti team in California (Seti meaning “the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence”) announced it would carry on trying to make contact with Aliens despite calls for caution.
The “Alien-hunt facility” has almost 400 signal-detecting dishes in the mountains northeast of San Francisco.
It can transmit into deep space and receive signals.
The question is: what happens if we receive an intelligent message?
The astrophysicists have agreed on one thing: “Don’t answer it!”
They prescribe that “no response should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.”
This decision comes as a great relief to me. The last thing I would want is for Planet Earth to attract the attention of some giant planet which might then send a double-decker space bus filled with lizard-men 70m high in their stockinged feet who come tramping all over us as if we were ants as they search for the intelligent life that replied to their transmissions.
Since space probing by radio waves began in 1959 the most intelligent signal received has been from an electronically operated garage door.
An international team discused how to respond to it for four days.
Ever since scientists set up Seti I have pleaded for Seti to rather go for a KOHDASU policy (Keep Our Heads Down and Shut Up). This is because I fear that if there is intelligent life out there its creatures might be bigger, meaner and greedier than us earthlings. And the last thing we want to do is attract their attention.
They might harvest us to extinction just as we have done to various species on our own planet.
They might collect us in bags for sale in open air markets on Planet Zug selling us by the scoop like loose nuts.
They might carry our skyscrapers and railway trains back with them for their mountain-sized kids to play with – after shaking out all the wriggling little occupants.
Or they might be cold, slimy, smelly creatures who take a shine to us and with hearts overflowing with affection crawl into our beds at night eager for warmth and company.
The one ray of hope in all this is that if we do receive a signal it will probably be millions of years old. This is because if there is indeed life out there it will be on a planet zillions of light years away.
On the other hand what’s to say they can’t travel a million times faster than light or send remote giant controlled vacuum cleaners to suck up and bring home little samples of distant planets – little samples such as London or New York?

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Back from Zimbabwe

This is a brief and hasty note to say we are back from the wilds of Zimbabwe – having spent our time mostly in the Eastern Highlands on the Mozambique border – nine days of birding in woodlands and cathedral forests and amid spectacular scenery.
There was not an uneasy moment and we felt perfectly secure at all times – security being my major concern before setting out.
I must now catch up with my columns etc but I must first put on record that even in the remotest areas we felt relaxed and secure and were greeted everywhere with smiles and greetings. Everywhere.
Incredibly, I found 43 “lifers” (species I’d never seen before and many of which are found only in small isolated habitats on the border. Mary who’s Southern African life list was already way beyond my own, saw 25 species new to her. (We used local birding guides daily).
Apart from the wilds …
Harare is in a state of decay with appallingly potholed roads and permanently broken traffic lights as well as rusting non-functioning street lights. Mutare too is in an advanced state of decay. Yet city and town drivers show no impatience despite traffic conditions and although taxis and cars cross through uncontrolled intersections half-a-dozen at a time rather than one by one, there’s no hooting or signs of aggression.
Beyond the cities the highways are excellent and the quality of driving is good.
Zim, we decided, is a wonderful country – despite its politicians.
Its remaining whites – although their quality of life and their properties have greatly deteriorated – show a great spirit. We came across no whinging. The Shonas – despite their poverty – are cheerful and well dressed.
I feel quite elated having rediscovered our northern neighbours. They’re nice people!
(I should add that our expedition was totally unsponsored and that we flew into Harare and so avoided the notorious Beit Bridge border post.)

Questions about Zimbabwe and touring there

Since my last post I have been assured that motoring in the remoter parts of Zimbabwe is not as bad as some make out. Nevertheless my (female) colleague and I, both on the wrong side of 60, feel rather vulnerable.
We are wondering if it would be safer to hire a driver. This would be for the six days that we’d be birding away from the Harare region where we will have a guide with us.
The e advantage of a driver would be to have somebody to look after the vehicle shouild we stop at the roadside to do a bit of birding or if we visit a popular tourist site – and we’d have somebody who speaks Shona should we run into trouble. On our last day we have to drive from Aberfoyle to Harare airport (5 hours).
A major disadvantage is that only one of us could then sit up front – birding from a back seat is useless.
Can somebody with experience regarding birding in Zimbabwe, espescially in the Eastern Highlands, advise us please?

Beryl, the real peril

Health and safety officers in Britain are alarmed at the number of children doing adults’ work – illegally.
They found a 12-year-old operating a mechanical digger laying drives in Birmingham, and a l3-year-old girl working as a hospital receptionist. – Report.

Beryl (13) knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was too old for Selwyn (12), but then, she told herself, Selwyn was way ahead of his years.
Did he not drive a 32-ton mechanical digger which could, with one scoop, lift out a fair-sized cottage?
Indeed, had he not done just that – accidentally?
The problem was, Beryl said to herself as she examined her acne in the little mirror at Thornton Hospital reception desk, Selwyn was doing a man’s job – yet her parents refused to admit it.
Ok, so it was their cottage he had totalled. But still, it was no reason for them to go on and on about it for two whole days.
The telephone rang and Beryl chanted: “Thornton Hospital! How may I help yoo-hoo?”
It was a very excited woman on the other end. Beryl puzzled, removed the phone from her ear and stared for a moment into the earpiece. Then she said “What? I mean pardon, madam? You say your waters have broken?
“I think you need a plumber. Try the Yellow Pages.”
Beryl put down the phone in time to see the dragon-like Mrs Monckton coming down from seeing her husband in ward 6. The old lady waddled up to the reception desk and announced “Ernie is much better today. He says he’s dying to come home.”
“It’s the anaesthetic,” said Beryl, “it can’t have worn off yet.”
Beryl removed the wooden tongue-depressor she used as a bookmark and tried to continue reading Nancy Drew and the Arab Prince. But her mind was in turmoil.
There was the disco tomorrow night, and what to wear, and Bob’s invitation to his school dance.
Bob, now in Std 9, was working part time driving locomotives. His kid brother, too young to even climb on to one of those monsters, had to be satisfied working a signal box on Saturday mornings.
It was nice earning money, Beryl told herself, as she thought of all her friends who were either studying or in labour.
The phone rang again: “ThorntonHospitalhowmayIhelpyoo-hoo?”
It was a woman asking how it was that her husband, who was being treated for asthma, died of heart disease? Beryl reassured her: “Please, madam, if the hospital was treating your husband for asthma he would have died of asthma.”
Beryl saw young Doctor Harding walking past, nonchalantly swinging his stethoscope. She sighed a little sigh. He once did 10 tonsillectomies in an hour. Everybody said that wasn’t bad for a 15-year-old.
Her thoughts slipped back to her boyfriend, Selwyn. Maybe she thought, he would look older if his mother let him wear longs. But his mother wouldn’t buy him any until he learned to do joined-up writing.
It was fair enough. Selwyn had a little dyslexia but it was hardly a handicap. There was just the one incident where Selwyn had ripped up the drive of number 31 Oak Avenue instead of number 13. But everybody makes mistakes.
And, anyway, it was nothing compared with what Bertie Grimes did at the airport. But then Bertie was only 11 and, as the chairman of the board of inquiry said, at Bertie’s age, he should never have been put in charge of air traffic control.

The Yellow Six to the rescue

The Second World War, which 70 years ago was going well for the Allies, was a good time to be a Boy Scout because, apart from helping with The War Effort (which included collecting any kind of waste with which to hit the Germans) there was also such a shortage of manpower that it meant Scouts were often called upon when a lot of hands were needed.
One grey November afternoon I heard, over the radio, that the Warwickshire police were seeking volunteers to search nearby Sutton Park – mostly a marshland – for a missing woman.
We marched to the police station and, as most of us wore studs in our shoes, we made quite an imperialistic noise. As we swung into the police station everybody looked up including Chief Inspector Victor Rex Cogbill who had been seconded to co-ordinate the hunt. It was, of course, a Boy Scout’s duty to ‘serve God and the King’ and we instinctively recognised that the Inspector represented both.
But there was a distinct raising of the eyes when our village constable saw us. He towered above us, which was not difficult. He knew us collectively and individually and suggested to the Inspector that it would not be wise to have Boy Scouts wandering around the moors, especially as it was near dusk, and especially as the missing woman might have been murdered.
Murdered!
Now we were really keen. We all began tugging at the Inspector’s sleeve. He then nodded to the Constable who, with undisguised reluctance, allocated us a sector of the park which was particularly soggy.
We carried our patrol whistle which had a pea in it and we were told to blow it loudly if we saw or found anything.
We walked through strings of cold mist, down into the dale, singing patriotic songs in deep voices in the hope that if the murderer was around he would think the Eighth Army was bearing down. Although the sun was still two hours from setting the afternoon was gloomy and foreboding. Soon we were shivering and up to our ankles in black ooze.
Our voices trailed off and we lapsed into a silence. It was then we became aware of the distant baying of bloodhounds and our hair stood on end despite the weight of Brylcreem.
As it grew dark we closed up.
Each of us carried a scout staff, a long pole made from ash which Boy Scouts use for vaulting streams and building arch bridges similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. None of us had really mastered the art even of vaulting streams but we never gave up trying. As we advanced into the swamp I let Vincent Laidlaw go in front because, well, first it was good to give everybody a go at leading, and second, he had a bayonet lashed to his staff.
Darkness fell.
We were frequently sinking up to our knees in mud and were keeping so close together we kept standing on each other’s feet – except Arbuckle whose enormous feet enabled him to walk on the surface.
Somebody said ‘What if we run into the murderer?’ We closed up even tighter. It now became impossible to move in any direction. I decided to blow on the whistle but the pea kept popping out.
Late that night a huge spotlight that should have attracted enemy bombers from as far away as Schleswig Holstein began sweeping the marsh and it finally settled on us. There were dogs and voices and, in the white glare, some agitated mother-looking figures. A loudhailer said ‘Walk this way!’
We then learned that the missing women had been at a cinema. In those days you could sit there all day for a shilling.
The police had spent the evening looking for us.
There towered Constable Cope, his eyes raised up into his forehead so they gleamed like a pair of hard boiled eggs.
(Adapted from The Yellow Six – available via Amazon (kindle) and Smashwords.

The most beautiful site in Tuscany – in fact anywhere

(An extract from “Blazing Bicycle Saddles” – the story of how a bunch of retired daily newspaper editors from Africa decide to explore “Darkest Europe” and bring back to Africa stories of the funny natives there.)

cycling

I’m sure it was sheer fatigue that led to our confusion after landing in Rome and making our way to Tuscany. At the central railway station, considering we were all seasoned travellers, we had the devil’s own job finding the train to Florence where we were due to change for Certaldo, the starting point of our cycle ride across Italy. The Italian rail system does not make things easy for foreigners. In fact, we were often left with the impression that the Italians actively dislike visitors and would much rather would-be tourists stayed home and posted their money to them.

While I stayed with the luggage the other five set off in different directions on intelligence-gathering missions. One found the train to Florence was leaving from platform 1, two said it was from platform 4 and a fourth was told platform 9. As two concurred on platform 4 that is where we went. There we found an Italian family who assured us we were on the right platform and pointed to the indicator screen which read “Firenze” (It’s difficult to say why the Italians get the spelling so wrong.) It worried us, though that there were so few people yet the train was imminent. With only five minutes to go the family suddenly panicked and ran off into the distance shouting “Sette!” (Seven!) We hurtled along in their wake and were just in time to leap aboard the train. Thank goodness, I thought, that Peter who had just joined our team and at 58 was by far the youngest, had reduced the team’s average age (seventy one) to well below seventy, because we could never normally have run that fast with our luggage.

The train sped through countryside that was bathed in autumn sunshine and it seemed that every other hill wore a crown in the shape of a medieval citadel. As the express quietly hummed along and the blue-grey olive groves and lush vineyards slid past, some of us dozed off.

We reached Certaldo late in the afternoon and stepped out of the station, sweaty and unshaven after 24 hours of travelling by air from Johannesburg and on trains. We surveyed the town’s steep Via San Giugno leading up to the base of the centuries-old fortified upper town – Certaldo Alto where our hotel was situated at the summit. Although there is a funicular it meant a 500 m walk to get to it so we hired two taxis for the ascent through the maze of narrow cobbled streets to the very summit itself.

After booking into the 400-year-old Hotel Vicario Osteria we were supposed to turn left out of the front door and walk down the street to our rooms in a more modern 300-year-old annex. But something made us turn right. Call it a sixth sense if you like but we did it in perfect unison with our instinctive finch-like flocking motion. In retrospect it was probably because there was no sign reading “caffé” if we’d turned left and we were seriously dehydrated. Around the corner we saw – and I will try not to be too sentimental about it – one of the most beautiful sights in Tuscany. Nay, in the whole of Europe at the time. We found ourselves in a thirteenth-century piazza and there, on an iron table in a shady corner, a shaft of sunshine was beaming down on an object of singular beauty – a large glass of golden beer. We flopped into chairs and ordered one each – our first Italian draft birra. It came in a litre-sized mug and a minute or two later we were staring into our empty glasses. Well, at least, I was.

Later, too tired to change the clothes we had worn overnight and having decided on an early night, we wandered down a steep and narrow alley to a delightful restaurant where we sat on a terrace with a panoramic view of Upper Tuscany. In the valley below were Roman walls and tiled roofs glowing in the setting sun. Far to the south, high on a hill was a citadel, toothier with medieval towers than any we’d seen up to now – San Gimignano, our destination the day after tomorrow.

Some of us ordered wild boar for dinner. Remembering how the Ancient Romans had tried to domesticate Africa’s guineafowl I ordered that. It was excellent. Everything was excellent and we joined in some banter with an English family at the next table.

It was a clear, warm evening and, as the sun slid below the hills the lights of distant villages competed with the stars. We raised our glasses to Italy and toasted a lot of other things besides. Even our wives again. Alan suggested we send them flowers on the morrow. The silence that followed was broken by Rex who said with his usual gravity, “Never do anything that might vaguely suggest to those at home that we might be feeling even a tiny bit guilty about being here without them.” We solemnly raised our glasses to our treasurer’s unquestionable wisdom.

We agreed that as we had the whole of the next day to spare we would get a train back to Florence and spend the day there.

 

A matter of class

Being a travel writer I fly around a lot – some of it by plane. I love taking off for an unusual destination. Even more, I love taking off from that unusual destination bound for home.

On one occasion I was flying first class to London – a rare treat but travel writers occasionally get upgraded – and I found myself sitting next to the head of the London Stock Exchange. (It wasn’t, of course, just his head on the seat. There was a considerable amount underneath.)

I shared with him my expert opinion on the world economy. He occasionally nodded and sometimes even seemed startled.

I had sworn that on this trip I would eat and drink in Spartan moderation and I had managed to stick rigidly to this resolution right up until I entered the plane and was offered champagne. Free champagne is difficult to resist. Then came dinner… well the meals are such that it would have been churlish to have sent back an unfinished one. The hors d’oeuvres was “Osietra caviar from the Caspian Sea”.

“I am rather partial to Osietra caviar,” I told my companion. “Much prefer it to Black Sea caviar.”

“Really?” he said.

I then had roast duck served with grilled mango.

My travelling companion had chosen a delicious looking fish dish. I peered closely at it and frowned. Then I looked again at the menu and saw he must have chosen the “Chef’s choice”. Now why didn’t I do that? I suggested we swop but he said he’d rather not.

I read out to him that the menu said the dish “was developed for the Culinary Olympics in Berlin”.

The Culinary Olympics! “Give me a knife and fork and get me to the Culinary Olympics and I’d do my country proud!” I said.

“Undoubtedly,” he said.

I chose a 1994 Pinotage because of its “soft tannins” and wondered aloud whether business class gets harder tannins and “cattle class” gets tannins as tough as old boots.

Airlines have, since then, mostly done away with first class and now meld it with business class which is also luxurious. Often, after travelling business class, I have difficulty adjusting to the social level of my family and friends.

I rummaged in the complimentary toilet bag and worked out how “Ooncle Jum” (as I am called by my English relatives whom I intended visiting en passant) would distribute the largesse among his nieces and nephews. I’d be able to give one nephew the shoehorn; another the tiny toothbrush with the tiny one-squeeze toothpaste tube; another the comb; while my four lucky little nieces would get, respectively, the little bottle of toilet water, one earplug each and the toilet bag itself.

My sniffy little cousin Prudence would get the sick bag.

After dinner I felt like pulling back the heavy curtains that divided first class from business class and then the curtains that separate business class from tourist and, in the name of egalitarianism, tossing my first class chocolates among those at the far back. But, instead, I ate them while revealing to my Stock Exchange companion my plan for accelerating the world’s economic recovery.

I noticed he drank champagne with his dinner. I mentioned that I had been told to avoid drinking anything sparkling when flying because if the aircraft has to increase altitude the bubbles in one’s stomach expand and one could find oneself floating, like a dirigible, against the ceiling with no chance of descending until the plane resumed a lower altitude.

He looked at me for a long time.

As I say, I enjoy flying overseas but there’s nothing quite like it when, at the end of a sojourn, one gets to the airport well in time to relax before one’s departure and settles in the business lounge where drinks and snacks are free.

On the return journey I acquire yet another toilet bag but the last time I did the distribution bit at home, one of my daughters said: “Oh no, Daddy, not another shoehorn!”

Talk about spoilt! There are some kids who’ve never even seen a shoehorn.

[Extract from “Recalculating” (The funny side of travel)  available on Kindle and Smashwords].

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